The slippery slope of money will only continue to change college football

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — With the University of Alabama deciding to re-think the next renovation of Bryant-Denny Stadium, and not gut most of the upper deck beyond the southern end zone to put in a student terrace and giant video board, one has to wonder what fundamentally led to the change in approach.

Redoing something that cost $65.6 million just a decade ago probably didn’t sit well with some people, plus there’s the ego factor as the initial plans called for stadium capacity to fall below 100,000.

With a seating capacity of 101,821, Bryant-Denny is one of the 10 biggest stadiums in the world, and Alabama led the nation in total fan attendance during the 2018 season. The Crimson Tide attracted 1,313,670 spectators to all of its games including home, away, neutral and postseason.

Apparently it can live with not having every home game sold out and the student section emptying early on a regular basis — with athletic director Greg Byrne’s recent comments about apathy, “We can’t take winning for granted,” suddenly making a lot more sense.

Those issues are not unique to Alabama, which is taking on those challenges with incentive programs and scheduling better opponents.

“We’re all concerned about attendance,” Football Bowl Association executive director Wright Waters said at the Alabama Sports Writers Association convention on Sunday.

But that that doesn’t mean that Alabama, or college football, is in dire straits. Far from it.

For example, Waters said that not only are bowls making money but have a $1.5 billion impact on local economies every year. It helps explain why more and more communities are trying to host, yet bowls are shifting toward regional matchups whenever possible to attract more fans.

On Tuesday, the National Football Foundation released the following highlights from the 2018-19 season:

• The six playoff games produced five of the six most-watched cable “presentations” of the year.

• The 366 regular season telecasts on major networks averaged 1,802,000 viewers per game while reaching more than 163 million unique fans.

• The 38 postseason bowl games averaged 5,008,000 viewers per game while reaching 90 million unique fans on television.

"In an increasingly fragmented world, especially in the media markets, college football remains one of the most powerful platforms for reaching a mass audience in real time,” NFF President and CEO Steve Hatchellsaid in a release.

Per the NCAA, there was a 1.3 percent drop in football attendance last season, but college football was still the nation’s second most popular sport with 47 million fans attending games.

The problem is lack of growth in the near future.

As college football celebrates its 150thanniversary the NCAA membership feels better than ever about football as the number of schools making money off the sport has gone from a handful to most of the Power Five leagues.

The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots makes conference expansion almost inevitable, along with extending the playoff from four teams to eight.

The latter is on hold for now because of affiliations, television agreements and everyone’s making more from things like conference’s developing their own TV networks, etc. However, incoming revenue is beginning to flat-line while schools are spending what they make to try and keep up with one another.

Similar to the students they’re graduating putting themselves into massive debt (which makes them unable to do things like purchase football tickets), athletic departments are mortgaging their futures.

Pretty soon, some will be desperate for new revenue streams.

They’ve already gone to the 12-game schedule, and the conference championship game is now the norm. Neither will be going anywhere, regardless of the wear and tear on players.

Which brings us to the playoff.

“I think so many people get tied in to taking a basketball bracket and trying to apply it to football. And that’s difficult,” Waters said.

Years ago when the powers that be in college football got serious about adding a playoff, a retreat was held to go over the best possibilities for making it happen. Everyone was split into four groups, with each brainstorming over one idea, to try and find which had the most potential.

Waters’ group focused on an eight-team playoff.

“We wanted to play the first round in campus, and our idea was to re-capture January 1,” he said. “It sounded pretty good until we laid it out for the presidents. And they told us not no, but hell no.”


A quick look at the calendar tells why.

The first weekend of December features conference championship games. It would be impractical to begin a playoff the following week because the teams not playing for a league title would have a competitive advantage.

Then you get into finals and graduation ceremonies. How would you do that with a playoff football game on campus? To begin with, there would be no hotel rooms available.

Subsequently, there’s Christmas.

Meanwhile, the calendar can’t go deeper on the other end because the spring semester starts in early January. The College Football Playoff is already pushing that envelope.

“You have to shrink this thing down to about 21 days,” Waters continued. “And then there are logistical issues like what will the public afford? In Alabama you have seven home games, and you go to a playoff, then a semifinal and then a final. We have people who can’t afford that.”

He didn’t even have to include neutral-site games, which have been a regular thing for the Crimson Tide but are now being phased out, and the conference championship game.

In 2017, when Alabama won the national title its fans caught a huge financial break when the Crimson Tide played its opener in Atlanta, didn’t make the SEC Championship Game, faced Clemson in New Orleans and finally played Georgia back in Atlanta.

Last year it opened in Orlando, and went back to Atlanta to face Georgia again in the SEC Championship Game, but then went coast-to-coast with Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and Clemson in the title game in the San Francisco Bay area.

Of all the title games Alabama has been in since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, it easily had the worst atmosphere.

“One of our concerns when we were looking at all it, is, ‘Is it becoming a corporate event like the Super Bowl?’” Waters said. “If you talk to the NFL and you say what is it about college football that you’d like to have that we have in the college game and every time they will tell you ‘We don’t have the passion that you have in college football. We wish we did.’

“Is that what we’re driving out? It’s getting closer and closer every year.”